The Pentagon is risking Republican ire with an unprecedented campaign to root out white supremacists and other right-wing extremists from the military.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered unit leaders to conduct a daylong "stand down" by the first week of April to discuss extremism and hate groups within their ranks after dozens of military veterans took part in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, and Republican lawmakers and right-wing pundits are already crying foul, reported Politico.
"We want our people to participate in the electoral process," said John Kirby, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson. "We want them to vote. It's absolutely okay for them to have political views. That's not what this is about. It is about ideology that is prejudicial to good order and discipline and contradictory to our values and could incite conduct and behavior in oneself or others that can actually do harm to the institution."
Active-duty service members who participated in the insurrection violated their oath and should be removed, most experts agree, but veterans say unit leaders should be careful not to turn the conversation toward conspiracy theories about a stolen election because those claims are so widely believed by former president Donald Trump's supporters.
"While you would ordinarily think of these as fringe beliefs, Fox News isn't fringe," said Doyle Hodges, a retired Navy commander and former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval War College. "When you tell someone a hallmark of the insurrectionist behaviors is not accepting legitimacy of the election, you not only are addressing the QAnon people. You are addressing a nontrivial portion of Fox News viewers. There's a real challenge in how you present it in a way that is not equivocal but also doesn't make someone feel persecuted by virtue of their political alignments. Good luck with that."
The military has been accused of taking a slapdash approach to rooting out extremism after a 2010 warning from the Department of Homeland Security that conservatives seized on as a political attack by the Obama administration, but the U.S. Capitol riot has reinvigorated calls to get the problem under control -- but the process is politically precarious.
"It really matters how it's done," Hodges said. "If it's done correctly, it's a way to educate the force about what the problem is and what it looks like. If it is done poorly, it is a way to make people feel persecuted on the basis of political views they hold."
The Navy is already requiring all sailors to reaffirm their oath to the Constitution after the insurrection and issued a warning about social media activity that appears to endorse extremism, but definition can be fraught with peril.
"You can't cross the line into political correctness," said retired Army lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer Roger Rosewall. "Then you are accusing them of thought crime. The risk is that current military leaders will be telling soldiers you may not believe this, that or the other thing."
Rosewall has written a book calling for a surgical process for removing extremism from the military, and he said the definition should be clear and narrow.
"Some service members believe their race, ethnic group, tribe, organization, etc., is superior to others, while acknowledging this belief affords them no special rights or privileges," he said. "Are they extremists?"